Any discussion of reparations must include how this happened, who did it, and the laws, policies and practices that allowed it.
The aftermath of the Tulsa Race Riot in Oklahoma in 1921, when whites burned down “Black Wall Street.”CreditOklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images
A House Judiciary subcommittee on Wednesday held the first hearing in over a decade on the issue of reparations for black Americans. The hearing took place, fittingly, on the Juneteenth holiday, commemorating the announcement of the end of slavery in the United States, and five years after the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who testified, reignited the debate with his 2014 essay “The Case for Reparations.” Once a fringe topic, reparations has emerged as an issue in the 2020 presidential campaign, with several leading candidates for the Democratic nomination expressing support for various measures to atone for America’s racist past.
Thanks to Mr. Coates and others, today’s movement for reparations places as much emphasis on the racist public policies of the 20th century, which denied black Americans opportunities to build wealth and left them vulnerable to all manner of economic exploitation, as it does on the crimes of slavery. Many leading proponents of reparations point to the federal government’s failure to provide land and resources (40 acres and a mule) to former slaves following emancipation, as promised, as laying the course for today’s inequities. “Had such a racial land reform taken place,” the Duke University economist William Darity Jr. argues, “it is easy to envision that the vast current differences in wealth between black and nonblacks would not exist.” Mr. Darity has gone so far as to use the ungranted 40 acres of land that was due former slaves as the basis for calculating the amount of reparations due to their descendants today.
But in addition to invoking the 40 acres black people never got, the reparations movement today should be talking about the approximately 11 million acres black people had but lost, in many cases through fraud, deception and outright theft, much of it taken in the past 50 years.
These property holdings could have provided a foundation for black wealth-building in post-Jim Crow America. Instead, they became a source of riches for others. Rather than helping to close the racial wealth gap, blacks’ landholdings became a key force in widening it. Black land-taking has been as instrumental as the denial of opportunities to acquire property in creating today’s racial wealth inequality and offers a more telling indicator of the barriers to upward mobility black people faced — and continue to face — in America.
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Understanding how this happened, identifying who did it and addressing the laws, policies and practices that allowed — and continue to allow — it to happen must be at the center of any discussion of reparations.
In the decades after the end of Reconstruction, as the nation abandoned its black citizens and the South descended into the age of Jim Crow, African-Americans succeeded, against all odds, in acquiring a remarkable amount of land. By 1910, black people claimed ownership of nearly 16 million acres in America. They did so in spite of the constant threat of forced dispossession at the hands of white mobs and officials. Sometimes, black property owners faced sudden and violent attacks, such as the racial cleansing of Forsyth County, Ga., in 1912 and the destruction of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Okla., in 1921.
As often, though, whites undermined black property ownership by more subtle means. White tax assessors routinely overvalued black-owned land, forcing black property owners to bear a heavier tax burden than whites (to pay for services they didn’t receive) and slowly draining families of earnings. If black-owned property became valuable or a black property owner challenged white supremacy, local officials could simply declare the property tax-delinquent and sell it at a tax sale. Writing in 1940, the N.A.A.C.P. special counsel Thurgood Marshall described the manipulation of tax-delinquency laws by white officials in the South as a practice and custom of “depriving Negroes of their property through subterfuge.”
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Despite this, at the dawn of the civil rights era, African-Americans still held substantial amounts of land, mostly in the South, a major portion of which was in some of the region’s fastest-growing areas and hottest real estate markets. Thanks to huge federal investments during the New Deal, the South in the mid-20th century went from being what President Franklin Roosevelt described as the “nation’s No. 1 economic problem” in the 1930s to the booming Sun Belt by the 1960s. The region’s rapid growth, along with the emergence of new industries like vacationing and tourism in rural and coastal areas, created an insatiable demand for land and made black property owners targets for removal by white officials and plunder by profit-seeking speculators. Both exploited the byproducts of blacks’ history of oppression to achieve their objectives.
The story of Evelina Jenkins, a black South Carolina Sea Islands native, offers a case in point. She owned dozens of acres of property — including an entire island — at a time in the early 1970s when land values along the state’s coastline were skyrocketing. As a result of the state’s pitiful expenditures on “colored” schools, Ms. Jenkins had received only minimal education and never learned to read. Decades of disfranchisement and white control of local government and the courts had taught her that whatever rights and protections it afforded did not apply to her. Even venturing inside the local government offices where people registered for licenses or paid their taxes was an invitation to be mistreated and humiliated, and was something to avoid.
So Ms. Jenkins entrusted a white neighbor who had befriended her to take her annual property tax payments to town for her. But rather than submitting Ms. Jenkins’s payments, he pocketed them, then waited for her taxes to fall delinquent, whereupon he bought the lien to her property at the county’s annual tax auction. Then, after the statutory redemption window closed, he gained title to her landholdings, island and all, which he subsequently resold to a developer. In the decades since, the land Jenkins once owned has generated untold amounts of wealth. Houses on the island she once owned today sell for upward of $400,000. Ms. Jenkins, though, never saw a dime of it. Rather than leave her children an ample inheritance, she died penniless, forced to live out her last days in her daughter’s mobile home.
While Ms. Jenkins’s case was particularly egregious, the legal theft of black land in similar ways was not uncommon. In booming real estate markets like Hilton Head and surrounding Sea Islands, tax sales afforded investors a lucrative opportunity to acquire valuable property for pennies on the dollar. Here and elsewhere, local tax assessors served as accessories before the fact, deliberately overvaluing black-owned land or enacting sharp, capricious assessment spikes as development crept near, all aimed at forcing poor black farming families to sell under duress or steering them into tax delinquency.
Tax sales were just one of several ways speculators and developers manipulated property and tax laws, and exploited historic inequities, to expropriate black people’s land. Another was the forced partition sale. Because whites controlled the courts, blacks who acquired property during Jim Crow often opted to handle matters of inheritance informally, outside of the legal system. Instead of probating their wills, black property owners tended to bequeath their property to descendants in the form of undivided shares — an arrangement under which heirs become co-owners of a property, each with the right to sell his or her own interest. Predatory land speculators would search for a person who had recently inherited land this way and was willing to sell his or her share. Once the sale went through, the speculator — now a co-owner of the property — would have the right to petition the courts to order a sale of the entire tract of land (against the wishes of those family members who lived on it) and would then buy it.
These partition sales invariably resulted in the land being sold at well below its market value, enriching the buyer while leaving the displaced and dispossessed family members with nothing. Speculators have used this legal trick to force the sale of millions of acres of black-owned land over the past several decades. Only in the past couple of years have some states begun to adopt a uniform law designed to curb the most predatory abuses of heirs property laws. Much of the damage, though, has been done.
Indeed, many of the techniques used to take black-owned land remain legal today. The tax-sale law that allowed someone to steal Ms. Jenkins’s land remains on the books in South Carolina and many other states, and continues to be used to extract wealth from poor and vulnerable communities across America. Tax buying thrived in the wake of the 2008 housing foreclosure crisis, as the number of tax-delinquent homes mushroomed, and today in gentrifying cities, where rising property assessments function as a self-fulfilling prophecy, predicting the changes local officials hope to bring and forcing low-income people out.
Many local governments have resisted calls to protect homeowners from predatory tax buying and have instead sought to increase profitability for investors; other cities have taken aggressive steps to foreclose on tax-delinquent properties. Between 2011 and 2015, Detroitinitiated tax foreclosures on one out of every four properties in the city,an epidemic of tax delinquency caused, in large measure, by the illegal over-assessment of lower-valued properties. Then and now, the victims of discriminatory overtaxation and predatory tax buying are disproportionately black.
These continuing practices, more than the government’s broken promise of 40 acres and a mule 150 years ago, explain why black families today have 10 cents to every dollar held by white households and why that gap continues to widen. It’s why the history of black land-taking should be at the center of the reparations debate, not only because the scale of the loss was so great but also because it forces us to confront the uncomfortable truth that American prosperity has not bypassed black Americans so much as it has come directly at their expense. It’s no coincidence that African-American communities on the Sea Islands suffered their heaviest land losses in the 1970s and 1980s, the same decades when the area experienced its most rapid economic growth.
Indeed, slavery and Jim Crow not only excluded generations of black Americans from benefits and opportunities enjoyed by white Americans; it also exposed them to the most predatory features of our capitalist system. It turned black people’s earnest attempts to build wealth the American way — through property ownership — into an opportunity for others to profit at their expense.
If we ever hope to repair the damage racism has done to America, and address the dividends it continues to pay to white Americans, we cannot simply open to black Americans previously closed doors of opportunity or merely provide some form of compensation for past injustices. We must also work to dismantle the laws and policies that sanction the continued extraction of property and resources from black communities.
Andrew W. Kahrl (@andrewkahrl) is an associate professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Virginia.
Not long after President Trump took office, I visited a small neighborhood in Louisiana. A half-hour from New Orleans, St. John the Baptist is a rectangle of modest homes bounded by the Mississippi River on one side and a large factory on another. For years, the people living there felt they had suffered a disproportionate share of health problems, including immune disorders, respiratory distress, headaches, heart troubles and cancers.
As an environmental reporter, I know how hard it is to definitively tie a community’s health complaints to its surroundings. Even when there is severe suffering and a seemingly obvious culprit, it’s often impossible to pin blame on any single cause. But in St. John, the case had already been precisely made by the very entity that had the power to change it. At the end of 2015, a report from the Environmental Protection Agency showed that the census tract in St. John had by far the highest risk of cancer from air pollution in the nation. Nationwide the risk of cancer from chemicals emitted by industrial facilities was about 30 for every million people. But in this small neighborhood, it was more than 800.
A 2015 report from the Environmental Protection Agency showed that St. John the Baptist had the highest risk of cancer from air pollution in the nation.CreditWilliam Widmer for The New York Times
A vast majority of that risk, according to the report, was coming from a colorless gas called chloroprene that the nearby synthetic rubber factory has been emitting since 1969. For most of that time, there was no official government recognition of the chemical’s harms. But in 2010, a little-known division of the E.P.A. called the Integrated Risk Information System, or IRIS, had assessed chloroprene to be a likely human carcinogen and calculated a new safety limit for it. Five years later, the agency’s National Air Toxics Assessment report used that threshold and emissions data from the plant to estimate the local cancer risk.
Of course, the news that they had been breathing toxic air for decades infuriated the people of St. John. But it also served as a cry for help. Surely once a federal agency pinpointed their problem, someone would have to fix it. Robert Taylor, 78, is the executive director of Concerned Citizens of St. John, a community group organized in response to the pollution caused by chloroprene from a local Denka plant. CreditWilliam Widmer for The New York Times
But as the people of St. John soon learned, though lawmakers can use the risk levels from IRIS to legally limit chemicals, set levels at federal cleanup sites or shutter factories that emit them, they don’t have to do any of those things. And so far, in St. John, no one has.
St. John isn’t the only place where the E.P.A. has quantified health risks without providing a straightforward way to turn those numbers into enforceable regulation. According to the agency’s most recent assessment of air toxicity, which was released in August 2018 and is based on data from 2014, 109 census tracts had a risk of cancer above its official threshold of acceptability: 100 cancers in a million people.
Over the months I was looking at these hot spots, I noticed that three chemicals cause a large majority of the elevated cancer risk from air pollution around the country: chloroprene, ethylene oxide and formaldehyde. Of the 109 census tracts with elevated cancer risk from air pollution, only one would still have a risk greater than 100 cancers in a million people if the E.P.A. were to set binding limits on these three chemicals.
But that hasn’t happened. And in the absence of federal action (which predates the current administration), it has fallen to affected residents to take on local polluters. In Willowbrook, Ill., a well-to-do, largely white suburb of Chicago, people living near a factory that emitted another air pollutant IRIS recently assessed, ethylene oxide, had a rare success. In February, after residents protested, their state environmental agency closed the factory, which had used the chemical to sterilize medical equipment.
Other polluted communities haven’t been able to vanquish their local polluters. In many places where cancer risk from air pollution is elevated, people aren’t aware of the danger. And even when residents know about and call attention to the problem, their efforts have not been as well received as the Willowbrook residents’ were.
A community group also formed in St. John to protest the air pollution in 2016. But there, where 90 percent of residents are African-American and per capita income is just over $17,000 a year, those protests have largely fallen on deaf ears. Last month, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality asked Denka, the company that releases chloroprene into St. John, to show it had reduced its emissions to 15 percent of the amount released in 2014. Denka promised to meet these goals in January of 2017, but failed. This month, the state indicated, finally, that it might soon sue the company.The Denka chemical plant has been emitting chloroprene, a colorless human carcinogen, into St. John Parish since 1969.CreditWilliam Widmer for The New York Times
In St. John and other places with toxic air pollution, residents are running into a hard truth: The companies that release the carcinogens often have more sway than they do. The manufacturers of all three chemicals responsible for most of the elevated cancer risk from air pollution have been working hard to make sure their products stay in regulatory limbo.
Denka asked IRIS to “correct” its assessment of chloroprene by changing its classification from a “probable” to “suggestive” human carcinogen and replacing the safety limit for chloroprene with one that is 156 times higher. IRIS denied that request in January 2018; Denka has since asked the agency to again reconsider its assessment. Though the E.P.A. has stood by its science, local authorities have cited the industry efforts as a reason not to limit emissions.
The American Chemistry Council, which represents several ethylene oxide manufacturers, has also requested that the E.P.A. raise the safety levels IRIS set for that chemical and change the values that were used to calculate the air toxicity report.
The third-biggest contributor to the elevated cancer risk nationwide, formaldehyde, is also the subject of intense pressure within the E.P.A. According to a report that the Government Accountability Office released in March, the assessment of that chemical, which is used in building materials, glue and fabrics, and has been linked to cancers, was withheld from publication — along with 10 others. It’s worth noting that the Trump appointee who now oversees IRIS, David Dunlap, used to represent formaldehyde manufacturers on a panel of the American Chemistry Council as the director of policy and regulatory affairs for Koch Industries.
In an administration that has been defined by its science denial and regulatory rollbacks, the assessments that haven’t led to enforceable protections — or have been kept from the public entirely — are in one sense just another example of a government captured by industry. But for some in St. John, the failure to act is a matter of life and death.
Two years after I first wrote about St. John, the people there are still breathing in carcinogens. According to the 2018 National Air Toxics Report, this little area by the Mississippi River still has the highest risk of cancer from air pollution in the nation. This time, between ethylene oxide, which emanates from a local Union Carbide plant, chloroprene and 43 other industrial chemicals, the risk is up to 1,505 cancers per million people — almost 50 times the national average. Some residents I wrote about in my first story have died.
For the rest of the people in St. John and the other places facing high cancer risks, there is still hope. The E.P.A. has already done most of the hard work, studying and measuring the chemicals that threaten the lives of people around the country. Now it just has to get over its anti-regulatory bias, act on its own science and get rid of them.
Sharon Lerner (@fastlerner) is an environmental reporter for The Intercept. This article was reported in partnership with the nonprofit Type Investigations.
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Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.A version of this article appears in print on June 22, 2019, on Page SR9 of the New York edition with the headline: When Pollution Is a Way of Life. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe